Another Long and Rambling Post About Elderscrolls Games

I’ve gone back to some Morrowind for a bit. I have a character who’s now up to level 40 or something, has 100s in all stats except for luck and is, for all intents and purposes, a god.

While one of the biggest problems I have with Morrowind is the ‘static’ nature of game world, especially in terms of things going on after you’ve finished a quest arc, I find myself going back to it over and over. There are some truly awesome and epic missions in the Tribunal Temple arc, particularly those out of Ghostgate, where you’re asked to make forays into the heart of godforsaken and accursed badlands of Red Mountain and retrieve lost relics of the temple from the hands of Dagoth Ur’s minions. But once you finish those last quests, you’re told “Congratulations, you’re the Patriarch now. Goodbye!” and your involvement with the Temple is effectively ended, save for the massive boost in faction/individual relationship ratings.

That part of your character’s life is ‘done’ so you can go on to do the next thing. “But I’m the pope of the dark elves!” I wish that had a bit more bearing on the game, I guess.

And in some ways it does. Once you’re a faction leader, members have a hard time refusing you things. Maybe the fact I was grandmaster of the Morag Tong made a fetch quest for some Telvanni shlub easier since the Morag Tong guy was all “Oh, hey, sure, have this thing.” I don’t know. It could’ve just been a personality check to begin with. I do like that being the Dark Elf Pope means that your underlings don’t murder you for heresy when you go around claiming to be the Nerevarine. But it does say a lot about the weight and worth of the rank of Patriarch of the Tribunal Temple when Vivec tells his own pope to screw off and not bother him if the main quest hasn’t started. Man, the theological implications!

I’m actually saving wrapping up the Mages Guild arc, partly because I like having that arc open ended, with everyone I run into at the halls pleading for me to replace Trebonnius, but also because I want to do his last quest. The one where he asks you to murder all of the Telvanni mage lords. And I’m doing the Telvanni great-house arc to become the head of the Telvanni first, because murdering all of the other Telvanni mage lords seems like such a Telvanni thing to do. I just hope I won’t have to kill Divayth Fyr; for some reason I find him one of the most likable characters in Morrowind, even if he’s a bit of a creep. Most people are playing politics for religious and world domination; Fyr just wants to cure an incurable disease.

I like Morrowind and keep coming back to it, I think, because it FEELS like a big world, and the towns FEEL like towns. Small towns, sure, but you always have the sense that they are, in fact, communities and places, not just for existing for the adventurer’s benefit. I think part of how it does this is by having lots of places that just aren’t really worth going. Yeah, the hero PROBABLY isn’t going to check out the various small houses, homes, hovels or apartments in a town, because there’s nothing THERE except for the basic implements of living for its inhabitants. But those places ARE there, which gives the towns more depth and a realistic feel. I’ve never checked out the (albeit very small) residential part of Northeast Ald Ruhn, but IT’S THERE! And the fact that the town is big enough to have a part that I can say “There’s a part of town I don’t go to” makes it feel bigger than it really is. Like some of the Canton’s of Vivec; there’s stuff there to do and check out, even if there’s nothing that would ever really prompt you to go there.

Even though Morrowind is, landmass-wise, a smaller world than Oblivion, it feels larger because of how it handles these town and random NPCs. Having a dozen or more people who can answer (from stock responses) 10 or more questions, for some reason, feels better than having a dozen people who have one very specific thing to tell you each, because if that thing that they tell you isn’t relevant, and that person isn’t a questgiver or merchant, you find that you’re asking yourself ‘was this person not fully implemented? Was there a dummied out quest where this person was relevant?’. That’s the way that half the characters in the imperial city feel. But some dude who is out hoing in his field, I am happy to see him out there hoing and am okay with the fact that he doesn’t know much relevant to me but can tell me a handful of generic things about the region around his farm. Keep rockin’, farm dude! The plethora of irrelevant characters makes this okay, because they’re there to make the world feel populous, and it does! But in a sparsely peopled game like Oblivion, if there is a farmer, and all he has to say is “I’m a farmer, these are my fields!” I feel let down; he is taking up valuable space that could be occupied by someone who could give me a quest!

Another irony is that Vvardenfell feels so much less ‘ruined’ than Cyrodiil. I mean, yeah, I get that things must have been bad under the Pretender, but Cyrodiil a lot of times feels more dead than alive. ALL of the forts are ruined. Lots of super ancient elven ruins are everywhere. In most cases, any place with that many ruins would have long since cleared them away and used their materials to build new and better structures. You’d think that the great and mighty empire would’ve at least engaged in some sort of renewal program, rebuilding and fortifying what forts they could, demolishing those that were too far gone and using them for materials. The immediate answer that comes to mind as to why they haven’t done this is that there just aren’t enough people. The imperial legion consists of maybe a dozen guys patrolling the highways. There’s no WAY they could actually man the ruined forts. Heck, the best the entire province could muster to stand against an extra-planar invasion force is two or three dudes from each city. Contrast this with Morrowind. While the Velothi towers are technically ‘ruined’, many of them are in excellent structural shape, and several are home to as many as a dozen people. In fact, you’re more likely to find a these towers peopled by wizards or retainers of great houses than monsters or brigands.

So why do I say it’s ironic? Well, Vvardenfell is JUST NOW being recolonized for the first time ages, and most of the structures are from the 1st age. But there are enough people in Vardenfell to actually fix up these places, fill them with furniture, and hang out there, which really lends to a feeling that there are LOTS of people here in the world, as opposed to ‘here is a thoroughly ruined castle’s underworks that is now inhabited by brigands with bedrolls.

Another thing I like about Morrowind is the abundance of tombs. I’ve written lots about tombs and undead and necromancy here, and Morrowind has the best handling of haunted tombs of any setting. The tombs are mostly small, often don’t have a lot of significant treasures other than those left as gifts to the ancestors. The guardians are ‘undead’ magical construct created by the tombs’ families made for the purpose of discouraging tomb robers. These are made from the bones of ancestors, so it is the family’s ancestors protecting their tomb with the magic of the present and past working together. I remember there was also some discussion of the ‘ash pits’ and the idea of mixing together the ancestral remains to strengthen the bonds of family after death, and part of this somehow tied into the creation of the ghost-fence. But what’s important to me is that they are not haunted in the traditional sense.

In Oblivion, and the world of Cyrodiil, to add to the feeling that you’re in a dead world, it seems like every place is haunted. Ruined forts, caves, and elven ruins are, more often than not, crawling with undead. Rotting zombie corpses, skeletons and aethereal undead are all over the place. These aren’t constructs created magically and put in place as sentinels, these are things that are appearing because all of the places in cyrodiil are reeking of death and evil. The reappearance of Mannimarco could explain this to some degree, but a lot of the places aren’t touched by the necromancers; they’re just haunted. I know that part of this is probably so they could create ‘undead’ as a levellable creature type, but it definitely contributes to making Cyrodiil feel like a place where the dead significantly outnumber the living.

Man, I’ve really gone overboad and in all directions in this post! So, what lessons can be drawn from this? Population can make a world feel more ‘real’; we don’t interact with everyone we see each day, but the fact that we see them and they are there gives us our impression of the world, and when that is missing from an imaginary world, we notice. Having more ruins than towns in a kingdom gives the feeling of a ‘dead world’, especially if we’re expected to believe that kingdom ISN’T in ruins. Especially if that kingdom is CROWDED with ruins. Most stable kingdoms, if able, will repurpose old structures or will demolish them to recycle the building materials. Having a kingdom that is filled with as many ruins as Cyrodiil will give the impression that the kingdom lacks the resources or manpower, very likely due to depopulation, to reclaim or recycle older buildings. Lastly, I say give the dead their own places. It’s fine to have haunted caves and castles now and then, but tombs are a great and consistent place for undead to lurk. Wherever they are, though, give them a good reason to be there! It shouldn’t just be ‘because it’s an evil place’. Your world deserves more depth than that. Heck, even feel free to use my ‘magic as chemical runoff’ model.

(apologies in advance for all of the ES proper name misspellings that I may not get around to correcting).

22 responses to “Another Long and Rambling Post About Elderscrolls Games

  1. I loved Morrowind, and although I don’t like to admit it, I loved Oblivion too… but only until I have played a few days, and noticed the level-grading shit and the lack of depth.

    So I shunned Skyrim like the plague, after reading a few reviews, and I wonder: have I been wise to do so? I think I have been, but what is your opinion?

    • Hey, Varg! Missed ya!

      I honestly haven’t been able to play Skyrim, and given that my girlfriend strongly disapproves of some of the things which have made their way into the game in terms of violence and sexuality, I doubt it’s on my short-list of things to pick up.

      What I would love to see is a game that looks as polished (or at least as polished as it was for the time) as Oblivion with Morrowind’s depth. As I’ve mentioned, Oblivion is such a PRETTY world. Morrowind would be nice to get lost in if it didn’t have the jarring frame-rate and laggy load times every time you enter a new cell.

      I think, though, that there may never be another video game quite like Morrowind, simply because the amount of time invested in its writing and creation simply cannot be recuperated. At least not in a game market that is dominated by first week sales results on multiplayer sports and shooter titles.

      Morrowind had the advantage that a decent chunk of the ‘world’ was already written for Daggerfall. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I once read that the non-numbered sequels to Daggerfall were only made because the studio did not want all of the world-building they’d done in the form of nearly 200 pages of in-game novels to go to waste.

    • I’ve been playing a lot of Skyrim lately (xBox version), and IMO it’s better than Oblivion in a lot of ways. I don’t know if it measures up to early ES games, ’cause I haven’t played them yet — I think my wife picked up Morrowind on GoG a while back, so I should look into it.

      There are a lot of things I hate about Skyrim as a game designer — and there are a lot of things I love about Skyrim as a gamer. I hate the bugs that crop up, but the game has a lot, a lot, a LOT of polish. Leveling works better than Oblivion — Bethesda has taken good points from Fallout 3…

      Is Skyrim worth it? …MAYBE, lol. I suppose it really depends on what you want out of a game, particularly what you want out of an ES game. Does it PLAY well, yes. It’s a pretty good game. Is it a good ES game? I dunno.

      –Dither

      • But gone are most of the RPG elements, and it looks more like an action game than anything else, again with the depth of a puddle. I don’t like action games. I like RPGs…

        And I detested Fallout 3 as well. I threw my copy in the bin, because nobody I knew even wanted it from me for free after trying it.

      • Arena and Daggerfall are free. There’s no reason to not play Arena, since you can beat it in a few nights. You won’t even have to cheat. It’s more of a maze/first-person-hack game than an RPG, but it was fun for what it was. Daggerfall is a spectacular mess because they tried to faithfully recreate a pencil-paper RPG with wild graphic and computing limitations. It’s interesting and fun to toy around with, but is astoundingly difficult (impossible) to complete the main quest without cheating. That said, it has fantastic story and pushed to the limits what could be done in a computer RPG.

    • When you say “RPG elements,” I assume you aren’t referring to just the levels and stats. While it’s true that Skyrim cut classes from character creation, I never saw that classes did much in Oblivion (again, my only reference for other ES games) to differentiate characters.

      Most of the roleplaying experience I’ve gotten out of Oblivion/Skyrim (and by extension, Fallout 3) games has been in the form of self-imposed challenges, arbitrary gameplay limitations, and quest discrimination.

      E.g. I hate the thieves’ guild quests in Skyrim because they involve harassing and intimidating merchants, so I refused to do them. There’s no “karma” reward, and I technically miss out on whatever rewards thieves’ guild membership may have offered, but I’ve effectively roleplayed my character.

      Now, I would follow that up by asking what you’re looking for in an RPG, but from the sound of it, the arcade/action game elements are a deal-breaker for you — so moot point is moot. Skyrim does deliver good action though. 😉

      –Dither

      • Classes?

        Well, I was thinking about stats and some other things. I don’t recall exactly what it was, only that it was all gone. Oblivion too was dumbed down, by the way, but not as much as Skyrim.

        Yeah, the assassin’s guild and thieves’ guild missions were always morally bankrupt. Not good.

        I think the level system in many RPGs is a bad thing, by the way. I like the RuneQuest approach much better.

      • I can’t speak for Varg, but in my own experience, one of the major differences is ‘railroading’. Morrowind often presents a or b choices in quests (quell the slave rebellion or free the slaves) that will have multiple faction ramifications, or even a, b or c choices (you can only join 1 great house per play through). As far as non-mechanical roleplaying goes, one can accept that they are a pawn of the emperor, a pawn of the Azura, an active participant in fulfilling the prophesy of the Nerevarine or legitimately believe that you ARE the Nerevarine because of how open-ended your role as protagonist is.

        In my current character, I had spent a good deal of time adventuring and collecting artifacts before doing many of the quests. “Hey, there’s a necromancer at… wait, he’s already dead? Thanks!” Often in Oblivion, locations, items and individuals would be ‘locked’ in such a way as to prevent breaking the code by adventuring out of order. You would just do one quest after another. In Morrowind, you could do any adventures at the many hubs in any order, provided you were of sufficient rank. Typically each city with a faction would have anywhere between 3-6 quests that could be done with no particular order in regards to the locations. “I don’t have any more duties for you, but you might ask with ______ in _____ or ________ in _______.”

    • Skyrim has consistently left me feeling “cold” (BWAHAHA … puns) upon quest-chain completion, usually because the payoff is usually blah and faceless and leveled or randomly-generated or whatever.

      There’s usually only one way to resolve a given quest, though there’s room for interpretation of the implications in resolving said quest. There are however, a number of relatively minor quests affecting fairly unimportant NPCs which can be resolved a couple of different ways…

      For starters, in Riverwood there’s a love triangle you can resolve in one of three ways… Rat on Suitor A, rat on Suitor B, or rat on BOTH of them and leave everyone in the cold. Aside from the three basic options, you can marry the central love interest yourself FTW.

      In Whiterun, there are some Redguard searching for a woman they claim to be a war criminal. You can side with her and killer her pursuers, or you can turn her over to them for great justice. There are no indications whatsoever that either side is correct, so you’re left to decide for yourself.

      I’m sure there are other moral quandaries like that one but I tend to ignore them because they’re very Philosophy 101 and don’t interest me. But I do love me some dungeon-crawling. ROFL

      I think the dragon fights are supposed to be a big deal, but I detest them because without fail I get insta-gibbed in every fight. Stupid dragon just gobbles me up, with no save. I have a haxxor ring that I equip whenever I can’t avoid a dragon, thatgives me 25,000,000% bow damage, then I just shoot the jerk and switch back to my normal ring.

      Stupid dragons.

      –Dither

      • So far as I know, next to nothing in Morrowind is randomly generated so far as loot goes. You find or steal a nice set of high-level weapons & armor or hit the right tomb, you could be set for life (or at least until you get artifact items, which are some of the only things better). Now I will admit, there are frustrating moments where I have a save and worry over the ramifications of one choice or the other, since there are many paths of no-return. Cuz seriously, do I kill these slaves or do I murder a Mage Lord in my faction to take the key off her dead body?

    • I forgot to mention the Daedra quests, which provide a fairly consistent source of both amusement and choice, even if the choice boils down to “murder an NPC and gain an artifact, or refuse and miss out.”

      –Dither

      • Which is extra annoying, since that’s the only way to get some of the best items in the game.

        So far, House Telvanni has had some pretty odious quests, even if they may have been optional. At least two quests given by Telvanni lords involve murdering fellow faction members in cold blood for artifacts they own and aren’t willing to part with. The eldest of the Telvanni Lords asks you to kill some lady to take her magic robes (one of the best unique clothing items I’ve come across) and gives you 10 gold for the trouble. Morrowind is pretty rife with moral ambiguity, but I’d say that House Telvanni is the closest thing to an ‘evil’ faction in the game. But even this is somewhat subverted by the fact that the guy who becomes your patron is a fairly decent and pragmatic guy. Still, it makes me wonder if the mad-archmage Trebonius’ secret post-endgame quest to kill all of the Telvanni Lords is really so evil as it sounds.

  2. There’s lots of good ideas in this post … will probably have to bookmark and come back a couple times.

    I totally agree with you on the population thing — seeing lots of useless, irrelevant people is an important part of a place appearing populated. For all its flaws, I really like how Final Fantasy 12 had crowds of people wandering around…

    …Now, whenever you approached these inconsequential NPCs, they would sort of fade out of existence like phantoms, but everywhere you turned there were more people wandering around…

    …Mixed in were people standing along the walls and such who would remain in place, and added to that were a smattering of NPCs with single lines of dialogue to deliver, and *then* you had merchants, and quest-givers, and so forth…

    …I loved the “degrees” or “grades” of NPCs as they appeared in the city, from the phantoms to the spear-holders, to the one-liners, and the merchants and quest-givers. Even with 90% of the population disappearing when they were within 5 feet of you, the cities all felt VIBRANT and ALIVE and FULL OF PEOPLE.

    I don’t know if I’ve seen another game do this… even other FF games. *facepalm*

    –Dither

    • Yes! This! I’d thought of FF12, but hadn’t included it in the post because it was already too scatterbrained. But I liked that there were dozens of people milling about every town screen, all with different (even if barely relevant) things to say about what was happening in the world. They felt like real towns, as opposed to games that get away with showing you large stretches of inaccessible city in the background.

      • I think if handled in degrees, even swathes of inaccessible landscape could be made to work. It’s basically the concept of negative space, you just have to make sure you prepare your players accordingly. :/

        –Dither

      • Well, in a pure table-top rpg setting, it’s a lot easier to create that negative space. That’s one of the points in favor of abstract city creation, where the DM supplies aspects of the town as the story demands rather than impose rigidity by creating the whole town from the get-go.

      • I’ve been thinking about the “settlement creation system” I’ve been working on — and I’ve been imagining it in the context of everyone at the table rolling up their brand-new 1st-level PCs and making decisions about what they’re going to play.

        It seems pretty cool in my head to have the DM asking questions of the party like, “so what do you think, this place has a 15 resources which means it could be pretty rich. Does that say ‘mining town’ or ‘guildocracy’ to you guys?”

        –Dither

  3. Rereading this post has reminded me about how I wish some games would provide an alternative to tomb-robbing. In most of the hypothetical societies created by these fantasy settings, tomb-robbing (an ordinary adventuring activity) should by all rights be considered reprehensible.

    I guess you can call bandit-murdering an alternative, but it’s trading one morally and/or ethically abominable act for another. Loot or murder? Hm, let me think.

    Now that I think about it, Skyrim does give you a fairly broad set of crafting options. I wonder how viable a career as a traveling smith-salesman would be? I wonder how objectionable self-defensing the occasional random encounter would be? *ponders*

    There are an awful lot of wolves and other wild animals. I suppose one could make a living as a hunter-gatherer and work their way up to higher-grade smithing materials with time. Hm. Right, and Alchemy is still technically the easiest way to make money. I forgot about that.

    –Dither

    • Well, in some of our other conversations I’ve talked about Elona. The majority of that game involves travel and trade between the various towns. Escorting individuals along the trade routes is much safer and profitable, especially at lower levels, than dungeon crawling.

      Frankly, I would be all about playing a Spice & Wolf like game (minus all of the nudity).

      One way to justify the adventurer robber trope:
      a plague has ravaged the land and left a lot of old holdings abandoned and in disrepair. Some families and distant relatives may want to retrieve important personal items, paperwork, etc., but does not want to risk travel & potential dangers, so they hire adventurers to either reclaim the items from the holdings OR reclaim the holdings from squatters so as to eventually rebuild the manors.

  4. Finally finished reading “The Real Berenziah.” Glad I read it on UESP, I never would have gotten through the whole thing in-game. Staring at a PC monitor is bad enough, the thing might as well be a novel unto itself.

    Now, my vague grasp on ES lore suggests that TRB is supplemental material for the first ES game “Arena,” correct?

    –Dither

    • Yeah, it clocks in at around 17,000 words. And you are correct. First introduced in a blackmail quest in Daggerfall, said Biography retcons the story of the first game from “Evil wizard has kidnapped the Emperor. Are you a bad enough dude to rescue him?” to something pretty elaborate.

      Also, a fun little point, even though you don’t port your stats (it was decided that the game engines were far too different for it to work), the hero from Daggerfall was written to be the same as the hero from Arena, hence the introduction in the confidence of the Emperor. If you haven’t ever watched the little live action intro for Daggerfall, check it out. It honestly blows Patrick Stewart’s Uriel Septim out of the water.

  5. Pingback: Morrowind Day | Cirsova

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